Far from star struck, fifteen year-old Aristotle Mendoza is weighted down by a strong sense of bitterness and boredom. It’s 1987. His summer is uneventful as hell. He has a tender mom and war-stricken father looking out for him, but it’s not enough. However, all that changes during a trip to the local community pool. When Ari meets light-skinned Dante Quintana and takes up his offer for free swimming lessons, Ari dives headlong into his own guarded heart. Not an easy task for a Mexican-American teen who may be attracted to other men.
Characters who Play by Different Rules
There is a simple but fluid grace in the way New Mexico-born author Benjamin Alire Sáenz breathes life into his characters. Ari and Dante are two young Latinos who compliment each other in numerous ways. As their calm summer begins to warm up, we get an intimate look at how the two young men bond so quickly over swimming. Ari is tough as nails and sarcastic. Dante is carefree and kind, with a penchant for literature and sketching that fascinates Ari. However, they never feel entirely incompatible.
From one day to the next, Ari and Dante begin to gently take root in each other’s lives. It isn’t long before Dante knows Ari’s parents, and vice versa. The more Ari explores the literature and poetry that Dante is so fond of, the more he realizes how much raw feeling he’s been stuffing down. “Words were different when they lived inside of you,” Ari notes at the end of one chapter.
Although Aristotle and Dante is a young adult novel, Sáenz spares no expense in developing the adult characters. Ari’s mom is warm but also a woman of solitude at times. Mr. Mendoza lives with agonizing memories of his time spent fighting in the Vietnam War. Then there’s Ari’s older brother, Bernardo, whose time in jail leaves Ari feeling even more bereft. Even so, Ari is so confident that his true love is a high school girl named Ileana. It’s also refreshing to see how Dante’s parents are no less affected by worry and Latino cultural norms than Ari’s parents, even though the Quintanas appear more educated and proper on the surface.
True Heart’s Love
Sáenz has a narrative voice that is unadorned and yet soulful. By exploring the themes of self-acceptance, gay love, and Mexican-American culture, he captures the bare-boned essence of what it means to reject love and ultimately reject one’s self. Refusing to rely on cloying teenage angst or overly sentimental family drama, Sáenz instead embraces the most primal of imagery: the rain on a hot desert landscape, the red glow of Ari’s 1957 Chevy pickup, and the blood that Ari spills when he fights other teens who show any form of ridicule toward him or Dante.
Without a doubt, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is poignant in how it challenges both cultural and romantic norms. The prose is concise and cuts straight to the point, which nicely mirrors how bottled up Ari is at first. Dante’s flowery hope and brazen honesty about his interest in other boys resonates as clearly as the chime of a bell.
There is a self-assured and timeless hope in these two boy’s coming-of-age tale. The author takes no clear sides, choosing instead to hone in on the unquestionable importance of accepting one’s own sense of love and need for self-disclosure. Through Ari’s fever dreams, fist fights, and first kiss with Dante, we find catharsis. Sáenz both honors and challenges our notions of ethnicity and forgiveness. With such a pinpoint scope, he helps us to break out of so many cookie-cutter molds. Then he shows us how to belong to the rain.
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